Art That Offends

Wendell Berry writes in Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community of playwright, Arthur Kopit, who said this of one of his plays: “I am immodestly proud that it is written in consistently bad taste. It’s about vile people who do vile things. They are totally loathsome, and I love them all…. I am almost positive it has something to offend everyone.”

In the essay Berry takes issue with Kopit’s intent to offend and uses it as an occasion to discuss what happens when artists use their gifts to destroy. He writes:

“I know that for a century of so many artists have felt it was their duty – a mark of their honesty and courage – to offend their audience… But I would distinguish between the intention to offend and the willingness to risk offending. Honesty and artistic integrity do not require anyone to intend to give offense, though they may certainly cause offense… I wish that [artists who want to offend] could see that they who make offensiveness an artistic or didactic procedure are drawing on a moral capital that they may be using up… The idea that people can be improved by being offended will finally have to meet the idea that books, popular songs, movies, television shows, sex videos, and so on are “just fiction” or “just art” and therefore exist “for their own sake” and have no influence. To argue that works of art are “only” fictions of self-expressions and therefore cannot cause bad behavior is also to argue that they cannot cause good behavior. It is, moreover, to make an absolute division between art and life, experience and life, mind and body – a division that is intolerable to anyone who is at all serious about being a human or a member of a community or even a citizen.”

Art has the power to make change, and artists step into the heavy responsibility of using that power with integrity when they step into the realm of their art. There is no “art for art’s sake” as if there could be a neutral cultural product. The things we make come from a worldview and carry that worldview within them. We cannot control every stray influence that someone takes out a work of art, but we can control what we are purposing in the art.

To seek to offend as an end in itself may “draw on a moral capital” that the community needs, and in so doing, drain it. What does it mean for art to replenish that moral capital? What does it mean for an artist’s truth-telling to be a blessing to the community (which may involve offending it if it needs correction, but does not inherently involve it)?

Art is not only fiction. It touches the real world and can change it. Francis Schaeffer argued that artists often played the role of translator of the higher realms of thought to the masses, so that the masses come to understand the world in the ways that the artists have come to understand the world. This makes artists the culture’s imaginers and dreamers and, as such, they have a key role in imagining the future of a people. We need artist to be faithful to that responsibility and tell their stories with truth, compassion, and honesty, and we need to come to understand this in a way that separates that faithfulness from the obligation to brutality.

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